Dr. Omed and the Dictatorship of the Imagination

little reverend dana

A little dictator, 1965

I did not learn to read, really, until I was enrolled in a special program in “phonics” at what was then Central State University between second and third grade.  Before that, my mother would read Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairy tales out of tattered old illustrated books which I presume dated back to her own childhood.  And things like Go Dog Go, of course.  After I learned how to read properly, I became an instant bookworm, and my mother limited me to 14 books per library visit—she thought more than one book per day was too much—I should go out and play with the other kids.

I was a bit of a fabulist as a child, particularly when pre-literate.  I had no trouble convincing other kids that I was really a creature from Mars (My Favorite Martian was on tv at the time), and I drew and sold maps showing the location of my buried flying saucer, for a quarter.  When the saucer hunters would come back dragging shovels, dirty and disappointed, I would say they hadn’t followed the map right, redraw it a little, and charge another quarter.   After they left, hope renewed, I would extend my antennae and make myself invisible for the rest of the day.  A bit later, a neighborhood girl and I created a religion and gathered our own flock of pint sized believers.  Our faith had its own pantheon of imaginary animals which only my co-prophet and I could see and hear, and which required frequent offerings—preferably candy rather than fodder.  I look back on this as the time of the Dictatorship of the Imagination,  before physical dominance begins its fascist rule of the playground.

Those kids were little lambs who had lost their way; they didn’t need that candy or spare change, they needed to be led to the barn, and then fleeced. In return for their offerings, my partner in preschool paganism and I gave them ritual, order, meaning, an imaginary holy circus and sacred mystery to believe in, be it a flying saucer or pigs with wings in the center ring. This is what all churches do. Our flock was only too happy to make the sacrifices we asked of them.   Pint size priestess and shaman had only to bear the burden of unbelief. I used up the role of conman/evangelist before I was 8 years old and thus was freed of the necessity of doing it as an adult.  I used up alot of things before I was a legal adult, and ended up as a poet.  I am an abject lesson in what happens when someone takes “the road less travelled by” that should have folks lining up to take Matt Reiten‘s predicted oral contraceptive for the prevention of unwanted imagination.  Of course, the behavioral  contraceptive against imagination is applied in the United States in minimum security detention facilities for teens, aka High School.

Up until the age of eight or so, when a regime change was forced upon me by my own conquest of alphabetic literacy, I ruled a little kingdom of beholding, not by superior force, superior strategy or superior organization, but by superior story telling, superior invention of games, in short by a superior ability to make it all up.  The kids I played with accepted this tyranny on my part as if it had been granted to me by divine right.

I think perhaps this is an experience some but not all people of unwonted imagination have as a child.  As I was tardy in my submission to the alphabet, my oral narrative ability was unhindered by literacy; many writers learn to read when they are very young, and I think learning to read at least temporarily suppresses the native “Homer” (the epic poet, not Simpson). The social, verbal, extroverted fabulator became a shy, introspective, and introverted bookworm when I learned to read.  Reading had a lot, though not everything to do with it.

I turned to books just as third world ex-dictators flee to exile in the south of France.  The realms of the written became my refuge from the Camp Concentration of school and the mobocracy of the playground.  So I came to literacy as an exile, an expatriot, a deposed king, and it became my adopted home.

Note: This is old yada, which means it was posted to the original Tent Show on Salonblogs, I don’t want to think about how long ago. I’ve revised it slightly.



7 responses to “Dr. Omed and the Dictatorship of the Imagination

  1. Dear Dr. Omed,

    I append snippets of my own old yada of which yours reminds me. I think of our Jesuit friend Spike (Aunt Crabby), how his involuted misanthropic cynical self was moulded from the strain between the Authority of the written word and the compulsion to become an angry robot. Mine, I think, was an attention to the deficits of grownups (identified on my granddaughter’s bedroom door in “No Gronops Aloud”), a sympathy for them, a willingness to comfort and to instruct them, to lead them in a manner less duplicitous and materialistic than yours to the urchins in the barn. Since I paid minimal attention to their instructions to me they considered me defiant and difficult to control. My goal in life was to be nice. I now readily admit I am difficult to control and defiant of convention (other than the arbitrarily orthographic). No wonder you and I and Spike are friends and poets. How does a nice person like Elspeth tolerate us?

    “I really wanted to go to school. It had to do with growing big like my older sister or like my even older cousin (who was in the first grade already). It was about reading, really. Big people could read stories from books, but I, sad and subdued, had to depend on them, to wait for them to read to me, to beg. Even my sister could recognize some letters of the alphabet. If only I could read there would be a world without limiting walls, a vast expanse illimitable before me through which with merely the power of my eyes I could crash ever faster and unendingly.

    “Before I went to school I had taught myself to read polysyllables from The Journal of the American Medical Association while looking there for photographs of naked women. Black rectangles were superimposed over their eyes, which at first I saw as masks like the Lone Ranger wore. (So, early I had misperceived externally imposed bondage as a voluntarily assumed whimsical disguise. How childish of me; how natural and normal.)”

    (from “Let Your Mind Alone”, probably still online in “Healing Through Meeting: How to Survive the Health Care Chaos” at http://www.HealingThroughMeeting.com but not included in the latest print edition)

    Be well.

    Doctor Nathan

  2. Just in case you are curious, Dana, here is the rest of that episode:

    “By the time I started real school I tried to subdue myself, my mind, my mouth, my curiosity. They kept telling me to sit in my seat and be quiet. I really tried not to be the way I was (each sincere moment at a time). But the next moment they would ask if anybody knew the answer, and I was triggered again for I knew not only that answer but all answers, remembered everything in the universe, for I was the child who crashed through it all faster than my eyes could see. So I raised my hand and shouted out the answer, and was hushed and chastised for it.
    “A pivotal event: In first grade science class the teacher, Alpha Boles, omitted a letter of a word she wrote on the blackboard (even in 1949 not black but green). I remember the very moment, I remember Miss Boles (her aesthenic posture, her thin voice, her protuberant belly which contrasted so violently with her twig-like cachectic limbs). I remember Miss Boles, but I do not remember which word she misspelled (my sin of repression). In all good faith, believing orthography a prominent value to the community of learning in which I was now an ardent apprentice, I raised my hand, and when properly recognized, corrected her omission. I was prepared humbly to deflect praise for what was simply my duty. With a shudder I imagined the harm which might have cascaded from a teacher’s inadvertent omission of a mere letter, the promulgation of error from that classroom of children and the next (if the board were not erased, the virus interdicted). The ensuing chain reaction might destroy the English language, all human culture, provoke another Holocaust. Miss Boles not only was displeased by my responsible contribution to truth, but took me by my ear down the long hall at a main pace to the principal’s office, cackling angrily, “Insubordination!”
    “They considered me a “behavior problem” because they could neither fill me nor contain me. Eventually I became a psychiatric patient at the age of eight. Tearfully I promised my mother I would stop being a burden to the family. My plan was to leave home, go out on my own, make my living as a free-lance writer (but to this day forty-five years later I have never sold a word I have written).”

  3. so the good Doctor “created a religion”.
    Who wuddathunkit ?

  4. I started reading at age 3 and I think you are absolutely right: literacy stunts the imagination in children. Lifelong bookworm here who is very, very slowly and tentatively letting in a little imagination.

    • penkill, I wouldn’t use the word stunt; more like trained, sort of like a bonsai is trained; or a horse broken, or channeled like engineering a wild river for navigation or irrigation; hard to find quite the right metaphor.

  5. Spike, a child could do it. Haven’t you noticed how childish the basic elements of religion are, before the theologians stick on the curliques?

  6. Nathan, the behavioral contraceptive is rather crude and nowhere near 100 percent ineffective.

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